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A Namibian activist team

A Namibian activist team. Photo: Nigel Flanagan

We repost the latest report from The Travelling Renegade, Nigel Flanagan's blog that focusses on global stories from trade unions

The Dream Team in Namibia – Elsie, Kachipuka, Kavaka and Helga

Namibia is easily one of the most beautiful places in the world. The blinding hot Namib desert, the lush green Etosha National park, the misty Skeleton Coast and even the odd and unusual Germanic/Bavarian nature of some its buildings – left over from a brief but bloody period as a German colony – make it unique and attractive. It is a vast country with a comparatively small human population. But it hides under its soil some of the greatest potential wealth in the world.

For many political activists of my generation it also meant SWAPO – the guerilla organisation fighting against South African White forces as part of the struggle against Apartheid. The people of Namibia have their own unique experience of Apartheid – military occupation and war. They too had heroes imprisoned with Mandela on Robyn Island

It is also where I worked with four wonderful union organisers. From the very dusty capital city of Windhoek we spread out across the mines of Namibia, looking to build up union organisation amongst the security workers protecting the major assets of the country – Gold, Diamonds, Copper and Uranium.

Elsie, Kavaka, Helga and Katichupa were recruited as Organisers by the union NATAU. Their job was to find leaders and build up recruitment in the sector where there was no union. They are all young, energetic and talented. Elsie and Kavaka had been working on this campaign long before I got there. When I first met them in 2012 they were already experienced and successful in organising workers. Their work was funded by the trade union solidarity organisation of Finland.

Security workers in Namibia share the same experiences as those in Kenya and Ghana – unorganised, casualised, low paid, untrained and expendable. But with NATAU they had an active trade union that already successfully organised the Railway workers, Transport workers and Airline workers. Thus we hoped that the union had experience and resources to utilise in this new campaign.

Elsie, Kavaka and I spread out in a 4 x 4 jeep into the desert, with maps of mines, plenty of water and the aim of reaching the port of Walvis Bay on the Atlantic Coast. We found mines in the middle of deserts, amongst hills and down dry stony tracks. We also found workers who wanted to join the union. Most of the mines were far away from any towns and so many of the workers lived in barracks. A lot of their issues came from the living conditions. Our access to these workers was helped by the NMUN – the National Mineworkers Union of Namibia.

Elsie and Kavaka were superb. They were out of the jeep and straight into the work, getting workers to sign up and asking them about their conditions. They laughed and charmed their way into the workplaces until eventually they would emerge with names, contacts, details and directions.

Elsie and Kavaka – it was often difficult to take photographs too close to the Mines – Navacheb was particularly well guarded

When we arrived at Walvis Bay we had more workers to meet and the energy of my comrades never droppped. I, however, was beginning to feel like an overweight white man in a climate far too hot for me. I dived from one piece of shade to another, sweating and wanting drinks. Reaching Walvis Bay was a tremendous experience for me. It felt like the edge of the world. The docks were enormous but the town was tiny. We spoke to workers at the docks and found a few prepared to try the union. By the time we returned a week later to Windhoek we had lots of names and contacts.

We were able to recruit two more Organisers. Helga and Kachipucha were both natural leaders – workers knew them and listened to them. They both fully understood what they were doing.

Elsie and Helga both had young children who were being looked after by mothers and sisters. Kavaka had a family living out in rural areas and a younger brother who he cared for in the city. Kachipucha was such an able and knowledgable guy, his company were pretty fed up when he chose to turn his back on a career with them and work for the union. It was not an easy choice for any of them. But together they were dynamite.

If you have done union organising you will recognise this scene – have you got everything you need?

We also had great fun together. They took me out for a meal at a Namibian restaurant and I was served the most delicious chicken I have ever eaten. Followed by the only worms I will ever eat – they were burnt black, crunchy and fried in black pepper. They tasted like burnt worms in black pepper.  The Comrades laughed uproariously at me, then brought out a goats head to eat. I struggled to adjust my taste in food. They laughed even more. The atmosphere amongst the activists and the organisers was first class and we were enjoying our work.

But to this day those workers remain unorganised. We underestimated the distance and geography of the mines and the capital. It was impossible to organise them and connect them to the union. Without outside resources it was impossible to sustain the organisation. With the benefit of hindsight maybe it would have been better to have organised them inside the much bigger and more powerful Mineworkers Union. We over reached.

These are new jobs in a new economy. The traditional unions are still operating inside the old economy and finding it hard. There is very little evidence of a great change inside the small bureaucracies of the unions or SWAPO. But workers are turning to social movement organisations in Namibia. There have been mass protests over housing and over education. As yet there is no sign that this is turning into political organisation to compete with SWAPO. Most social activists seem to gravitate towards it. But any serious political change in Namibia will have to confront the question of the control of its mineral wealth.

Those mines are the future of Namibia and although the Government has a controlling interest in the mines, it is still the companies like De Beers, Anglo American and others that control them. Private land strips fly diamonds straight out to Amsterdam, New York and London. Diamond prices are fixed internationally and controlled by the cartels so that African Governmemts cannot utilise their ownership to extract better deals. Namibia continues to be a very poor country with bad housing, little education provision and an indequate healthcare system. SWAPO has gone from being an inspiring armed resistance organisation to a ruling Party that privatises public services and bulldozes its people off informal housing  ot townships as we call them. I saw it happen.

None of the Namibian Dream Team are still working for NATAU. its an incredible loss of experience, intelligence and energy – especially given their age and the rarity of women organisers in Africa. The politics of struggle in Namibia are shadowing South Africa. The organisations that triumphed over Apartheid are not yet proving themselves to be strong enough to defend the workers in the new economies. The difficulties of the ANC and SWAPO are new – there is a post Apartheid generation that wants dramatic change. They are less likely to be sentimental about the past and the hope is that they will move to new forms of organisation and struggle.

Dont be surprised if you see Elsie, Helga, Kavaka and Kachipucha in the front line.

The entrance to a Namibian Mine.
Tagged under: Trade Union Africa
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